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While both V-8-powered super coupes are capable performers, the Audi is the more relaxed of this duo and the BMW is very good at inspiring very bad behaviour.
It's no secret that as a market matures, it also becomes more homogeneous. Whether it be computers, airplanes or automobiles, smart engineers eventually home in on a (semi) universal optimization that maximizes the product's functionality and the public's desires.
Though Samsung marketers will vociferously disagree, its Galaxy smartphones are nearly identical to the iPhone that invented the segment. All major airliners have their wings on the bottom of the fuselage and are powered by remarkably similar jet engines. Their avionics are so similar a Boeing engineer could probably repair an Airbus.
Even automobiles have, technically and stylistically, become comparatively indistinguishable, the commonality now remarkably complete. Where just 15 years ago there were substantial differences between a BMW and an Audi competing in the same segment, it is shocking how similar a current BMW 328 xDrive and an Audi A4 2.0T feel and perform, their differences more apparent to the marketers writing corporate ad copy than to anyone behind the wheel.
The same would be true if you casually compared BMW's famed M3 with Audi's starting-to-gain-a-following RS 5. Peruse the spec sheets and, save for the Audi's inclusion of its trademark quattro all-wheel-drive system (and the attendant weight penalty its extra hardware engenders), the two are strikingly similar. Their peak horsepower is but 36 ponies apart, their zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour times are all but identical, and it's even rumoured that the only reason the current generation M3 moved to a V-8 from its trademark in-line six (which, it is rumoured, the next M3 will return to shortly) is to compete with Audi among spec-sheet shoppers.
Yet unlike so many of their more mainstream models, these two hotrods are distinctly different and among the last representatives of the once vastly divergent core values of the two brands.
The BMW, unsurprisingly, is the hardcore hotrod of the duo. Oh, some purists lament the weight the M3 has gained over the years, but no matter how many airbags and sunshades (surely a blasphemy for a sporting M car) BMW adds, it is still a hard-edged track bandit at heart.
The 4.0-litre V-8 could have been liberated from an open-wheel racer. It frumps at idle, screams at redline and in between responds to the throttle like a meth addict to a police siren; to call it merely jumpy is to underestimate the desire the BMW power plant has for high revs. Imagine trying to hold a pack of Husky sled dogs to a trot on the first day of the Iditarod and you have some idea of the restraint it takes to contain the BMW's 414 horsepower.
The Audi's 4.2-litre V-8, though more powerful (450 horsepower versus the aforementioned 414) and equally high-revving, is comparatively relaxed by comparison. It may also thrive on high speeds and be equally smooth when hooning about, but its response is never quite as instantaneous nor seemingly as forceful.
It's a sweetheart of an engine and, in isolation, would feel incredibly sporty. But driven alongside the hyperactive BMW, it doesn't inspire quite as much bad behaviour.
Of course, to one and all that would seem a complete win in the BMW column. Indeed, yours truly, being an inveterate scofflaw, would prefer BMW's take on the high-performance V-8. But before you agree, think back to when you set up your computer: Did you set up the mouse response speed to its most frenetic? Do you really enjoy having the mouse skitter from one edge of the screen in an eye-blink? If the answer is no, you may find yourself really wishing you had opted for the more relaxed Audi.
There's an even bigger difference in road manners. Here, the BMW (again, unlike some the 3 Series mainstream models) plays to type. The steering is magic, responsive to the most delicate of inputs, yet provides all the feedback sporting drivers revel in. The suspension is firm, the grip tenacious and the M3 feels, on smooth and dry roads, like it could make a racetrack hero out of the little old lady from Pasadena.
The RS 5 offers most, but not all, the M3's superlatives. It, too, is firmly suspended, possessed of multi-piston brake calipers and its front tires are even more humongous -- 265/35R19s versus the BMW's 245/45R18s (both cars run identically sized 265 wide tires out back, but the BMW's are 40-profile, 18-inchers while the Audi's are the same lower-profile 19-inch 35s as the front). But its extra 140 kilograms (coupe compared with coupe), a distinctly more forward weight bias and the torque its all-wheel-drive system sends to the front tires conspire to make the steering a little more numb than the BMW's.
Audi has added fancy torque vectoring to the quattro system that helps disguise its nose-heavy handling, but weight is always a sports car's worst enemy. Again, driven in isolation, the RS 5 feels plenty sporty, yet compared directly with the M3, it feels a little like an athlete who's partied a little too hard in the off-season.
But again, before BMW fans go trumpeting that the M3 wins on all fronts, know this: At least half the people who drove both cars preferred the Audi, citing performance and handling sporty enough for their needs, while maintaining it was easier to drive. By easier, they mean the RS 5's transmission is smoother (BMW's seven-speed dual clutch box can occasionally be cranky), the ride more coddling (despite the M3's three-position adjustable damping) and the steering a little lighter.
As well, Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system instilled more confidence. It's not as loud, the controls are not as intimidating -- the BMW's M Drive, though well laid out, strikes many non-purists as a narcissism too far -- and its interior is a little more luxurious.
There's no doubt the ($71,700 for the coupe, $82,300 for the convertible) M3 is the very best of BMW. With the M5 but a Pillsbury doughboy impression of its former lithe self and the M6 even chunkier, it is the M3 that carries the M Division's flag more than ever.
It is everything a BMW is supposed to be: fleet of foot, expressive of engine and yet somehow eminently practical. For BMW loyalists, it is proof their favourite motor company remains the leader in building sporting, versatile automobiles.
But, as the ($77,500 for the coupe, $87,700 for the Cabrio) RS 5 proves, that doesn't mean it's for everyone.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013